Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Rising Phoenix Repertory's Cino Nights Raises the Bar for Off-Off Broadway

"It really boils down to the essence of theater. A script, a director and the actors. There's no place to hide...honest, raw, the reward comes from having the experience."
- Mando Alvarado

Rising Phoenix Repertory has commissioned nineteen playwrights to write new, full-length plays for the Seventh Street Small Stage, otherwise known as the back room of Jimmy’s No. 43, an East Village bar. They call it Cino Nights.

Inspired by Caffe Cino, a rented Cornelia Street storefront turned coffee shop/performance space that, under the direction of retired dancer Joe Cino, gave birth to what we know as Off-Off Broadway, Cino Nights is what RPR artistic director Daniel Talbott describes as a place to tap into the raw, inspired, inventive and pioneering work of the Caffe Cino.

Without the pressure of critics, box office and audience demands, writers and performers were able to play, provoke, risk failure and, ultimately, grow. Sam Shepard, Lanford Wilson and John Guare were a few of the playwrights that honed their craft before going onto critical and commercial success as did performers such as Al Pacino and Bernadette Peters.

Thus, the curtain rises on the fourth installment of Cino Nights Sunday, December 12th, with Florencia Lozano’s new play, Busted, which follows sold-out performances of Gary Sunshine’s play, Best Sex Ever, Courtney Baron’s Here I Lie and Mando Alvarado’s (O)n the 5:31.


Each show is rehearsed for one week and then fully-mounted and produced, 'warts and all', for one night only with free admission.

THEATERSPEAK interviewed a selection of the commissioned playwrights and, though each artist is distinct in voice, you'll notice a common theme that includes inventiveness, simplicity and pure joy. (Interviews have been edited in the interest of space.)

What was your experience doing Cino Nights?

GARY SUNSHINE: We rehearsed for a week, five hours a day. For the most part, it was surprisingly calm. Except when five men walked through the space carrying freshly-slaughtered pigs on their shoulders. Something about a barbecue on Governor’s Island that Jimmy of Jimmy’s 43 was involved in.

MANDO ALVARADO: There was no time for safe choices. We had to dive right into the deep end and trust that everything was gonna turn out fine.

What was the rehearsal process like?

MANDO ALVARADO: We had a couple of days of table work before we officially started. Making sure the script was in a good place to be put up. Making big broad strokes and tweaking as we went along. Everything was rushed. So a couple of days along in the process felt like two weeks. When we had our first run of the show, the notes that were given would be notes you would give after working three weeks. It was intense. But everyone really committed to it and threw their fears aside and pushed through it.

COURTNEY BARON: Cino Nights is such an awesome way to exercise the muscle that playwrights don't get to exercise enough: rehearsal towards production. I think the biggest challenge for me is that I like to work collaboratively and like to see what organically comes out in process. With the condensed time of the Cino Nights rehearsals: 5 days (no prep, pre-read-thrus, etc), I wish I had worked on articulating a vision prior to the first rehearsal. I know it would have been helpful for everyone. Even if we strayed from what I had envisioned, it would have been good to have a jumping off point. Discovering this as an issue has been really great and interesting.

Also, I'm a writer that loves to rewrite in the room, so I spent the first rehearsal cutting and rewriting, which took away a day of getting the script up on its feet. Still, I did get to realize that the rewriting in the room is my most honed tool for expressing my authorial intentions to the actors. The best thing about this process is that it asks you to let go of your notions of how it all should go, and if you can let go of overwrought expectations, I know for myself, I could probably find more opportunities to get my work in production. I could probably create them myself.

What is it about participating in Cino Nights that appeals to you?

ADDIE JOHNSON: I love getting to be at Jimmy's with our five-year-old son running around causing havoc, and I love getting to work with the company. I also love that we're getting to work with so many people in such intense bursts. One of the most exciting things for me is to get to see writers excited about writing something new and just jumping in- as opposed to being in this crazy position of readings and development where they're trying to build their work artistically and be open and inside it and honest with themselves and find people who can truly support them in that, and then at the same time they have to be in the position of having to pitch or sell themselves and their plays to potential producers and theaters, and take feedback from anyone and everyone who happens to read or hear the play.

It's part of what we all have to do as artists I think - that selling thing but it's so hard and can really wear you down, and in a way, this is so much more fun to say, 'come on down to Jimmy's and write anything you want and we'll bust our butts to put it up and get you what you need and make it what you want to see in this little funky space'. It's a wild idea and just gets to the heart of what so many of us love about theater - that it's playing, imagining, being ready to fail, using basic structure and simple rules about time and space as a jumping off point for any story you would ever want to tell.

ADAM SZYMKOWICZ: A lot of times when you're writing a play, you don't know if it will ever see a stage. Daniel said, you write a play, I'll put it up. That's a wonderful thing.

FLORENCIA LOZANO: I appreciate the opportunity to get to see a play of mine--which I have just barely finished writing, up on its feet and to hear it in the mouths of amazing actors and in the hands of a great director. I also am very excited about writing a piece specifically for Jimmy's. I prefer non-traditional theater spaces, where the audience does not take anything for granted about the experience of going to see a play. They don't get to sit in the dark and go to sleep. They are invited to be a part of the telling of the tale, of the experience of being together in real time with other live human beings, which is a precious experience in this day and age, and one not to be squandered.

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: The theater that's being done now - the conventional theater, is merely for profit. The smaller companies like Caffe Cino ALWAYS cared about the art. That's where it's at for me.

GARY SUNSHINE: What appealed to me most was the opportunity to write a new play, fast. I had an idea and very little time to talk myself out of that idea. There was something magical about knowing that, no matter what, in a month’s time, I would have my next piece of work or be totally humiliated and have to back out. I hate being humiliated so I had little choice but to finish it. And why not? It isn’t very often (more like, never) that I’ve gotten a guarantee of having my play produced, if only I’d show up with a completed script by an appointed day. That’s an incredibly inviting prospect!

EMILY DE VOTI: Writing a play that will definitely get produced is an incredibly rare opportunity and it changes the writing. I’ve had too many plays that have been developed and never reached production. After a while, it becomes hard to write, because it feels like you’re writing for a drawer. I have one play that has been developed with AMAZING people, but it has never been produced. I know it’s a beautiful play but I’ve started to hate it, and it’s kept me from writing new plays. I’m writing my Cino Nights play now, and it’s a whole new energy. Knowing that actors are going to have to perform it also makes me responsible to every single moment in a different way.

I think production is essential to letting a writer move on to the next script, to keeping agile and confident and tackling new current issues inside and outside of herself, as they come up, and thus to foster true artistic development. How do theaters expect writers to write about current issues when it can take several years to get a play produced? Also, I think seeing how your play works on stage is essential to creating plays that actually do work on stage, as opposed to plays that work when actors are sitting on chairs reading the play aloud, often for the first time, while drinking bottled water in the rehearsal room of a fancy theater.

CUSI CRAM: I like the art for art sake feeling that is at its core. Off and Off-off Broadway plays are just so expensive to produce so I like the poor theater ethos of this project. I like that it challenges me to write something for the right reasons. I like Daniel (Talbott, RPR artistic director) and his compadres. I like that it won't be reviewed. I like that it's a small space in the back room of a bar. I like that it hearkens back to a time when reviews and real estate did not rule the day. I like that I can fail and that is part of the purpose. I like that Daniel asked me to write a play and after I write it, I know it will be performed. That is the most liberating feeling of all.

JONATHAN BLITSTEIN: Aside from writing a site-specific play, the opportunity to be a part of a project with so many talented playwrights, actors and directors on board is thrilling. I also love that the shows are one-night only and free. It makes each production a real downtown theater event. We're all volunteering time and energy to bring something special to life. It's not just about each of our plays, it’s about what it means as a whole.

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN: I’m always looking for opportunities to write work I know will be seen and shared. I’m really good at writing for specific teams and directors and have found that embracing that process leads to my best work. Even when the play is already written, like my play The Vigil or the Guided Cradle that Impetuous Theater Group produced this year in a co-production with/at The Brick (which won an Innovative Theater Award), I rewrite in the room for those specific actors cast and to embrace the vision the director and I are going for. To do this again with a new story excites – and terrifies me – it’s actually very easy, but also challenging to write for that space – there’s nowhere for the play to hide. It’s all out there.

How do you feel about using such a site-specific space?

KRISTEN PALMER: For my play, the space is integral to the writing. It is the primary inspiration. I am conflating the back room at Jimmy's with a historical location - the Stray Dog Cabaret - a back room at the bottom of a stone stairway that hosted artists and plays and poetry readings in St.Petersburg, a hundred years ago.

EMILY DE VOTI: All theater is site specific. You just create the space in your mind first. With Jimmy’s, we have a head start. But of course each of us needs to re-imagine it in our own way. I love limitations, when it comes to writing. It makes me focus more on what I want, and how I can achieve it given the parameters. It feels like a puzzle, a jousting session between imagination and reality. Also, Jimmy’s is a very inspiring little space. It’s very grounding, and mysterious. And as I write, it is seeping up through my consciousness.

CUSI CRAM: I love limitations. It's like writing a sonnet or a haiku. I have a pretty vivid imagination, so taming it is a good and helpful thing. Many of my early plays have flying people or beds---they are not produced as much. I have been remarkably unimaginative in choosing my setting. My play takes place in a bar. Though, I think Jimmy's was once a speakeasy, so I did some research on New York speakeasies. I think the play is called Blind Tiger. That's what speakeasies for poor people were called. Often they would have some weird animal attraction like a blind pig or tiger and then pass around hootch. They charged you to look at the animal, not for the hootch. I would like to offer free hootch at my play and engage the audience in some sort of drinking game, like whenever one of the actors says a certain word they have to drink. I have to talk to my producers about this.

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN: I’ve learned a lot writing this way. Your mind starts racing with the possibilities - but at the same time your work becomes bare-bones in a really great way. As you can’t hide behind anything, the work pulled out is essential and truthful. I always go in and look at the space again, as it changes all the time. One day there’s a stuffed animal head on the wall, the next a string of Xmas lights everywhere. I write down three new details of the space I notice that dovetail into my idea. I go away then and write, but if I’m ever stumped, I just go back and get a beer.

Where are the strangest places you’ve had your work produced?

COURTNEY BARON: Grad School took me into some funny places, but post-school, the most exciting place I've had my work produced has been as part of Christine Jones's THEATER FOR ONE. In fact, Daniel Talbott performed my piece this summer on Times Square. It's a performance space modeled after a peep-show booth, one performer and one audience member in a contained space. It's amazing, although I'm pretty much too chicken to get in the box with one performer. When Daniel was rehearsing my piece, I had to leave the exit door cracked. Sad, but true.

EMILY DE VOTI: In a big marble shower in The Dakota. (New Georges benefit, 2005)

CUSI CRAM: An auditorium at the United Nations. Good audience.


JONATHAN BLITSTEIN: I had a one-act in Queens at an office which was converted to a theater space in a small building shared with a taxi depot. All sorts of weird types were lurking around. The backdrop was two big windows, so the Q train would rumble by all lit up. It was actually very cool.

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: Never really had strange experiences in reference to places but audiences? Oh yeah, audiences have been strange.

Is there anything idiosyncratic about your writing schedule or the way you write?

GARY SUNSHINE: It depends what else I’m doing. This year, I spent a season in LA writing for “Hung,” during which I did absolutely no playwriting. Then I came home and worked like crazy on this play. Then I walked away from it. I wish I could just even myself out and write the way people go to the gym—regularly—but I suck at going to the gym, too.

COURTNEY BARON: I'm the most extreme procrastinator. I will seemingly do nothing for months and then write a play in four days. Stay up all night. Kill myself. It's painful, but it's what I do. I think I just have an extreme gestation period. I wonder if it's idiosyncratic or just a little pathetic...

EMILY DE VOTI: Best when I'm backed into the corner with a deadline and need to write my way out. I wish it were predictable and regular enough to be idiosyncratic.

CUSI CRAM: It is always changing. I used to be a night writer. Now, it’s early morning. I try to do it five out of seven days.

LAURA EASON: I usually write about 75% of the play in my head before I actually sit down and type. I usually know what the big idea of the play is and have an outline with plot, characters, and scene breakdown - how many, what happens in them, some dialogue, etc. I write all of this in my head as I'm going about my life, while I'm working on other projects. I think about it in spare moments, on the subway, rocking the baby to sleep, waiting in line at the grocery, while watching other people's plays, sometime in the middle of working on other projects, I'll get an idea etc. and I read articles or stories that catch my eye that seem pertinent to the play's big idea.

So, over a period of weeks or months, I'll accumulate enough of what I need in my head to actually sit down and start in earnest. Of course, once I'm actually writing things down, things change but I usually can write a first draft of between 50 and 70 pages in two to four days. This helps me because I have a lot of ideas but, of course, not all of them are good. The ones I think are good are the ones that stay in my head and keep growing until I have to write them down. Many times I get about 25% of what I need but then the idea stops holding my interest and fades away. It's a good way to keep from starting on something that doesn't have legs for me.

CRYSTAL SKILLMAN: I write in chunks of time both in the morning and afternoon – though for some reason recently I love baking bread at the same time!

MEGAN MOSTYN-BROWN: I am a night writer. I used to write with the TV on which is like really bad. So I've been weaning myself off from that (I was a kid who did my homework in front of the TV). I'm also trying to write more during the day.

DAEL ORLANDERSMITH: My hours change ALL the time. Sometimes I write way into the night, other times, early morning. I also listen to certain songs that remind me of the characters I’m writing about.

JONATHAN BLITSTEIN: I prefer to write in public. I get a lot of work done in coffee shops. Some people work best at home. I like being in a corner at a shop, with people hanging around. It's inspiring to me.

What’s your play about?

FLORENCIA LOZANO: I am still discovering what my play's about but I wrote it so I could spend time with my girlfriends... if only in my imagination.

GARY SUNSHINE: Best Sex Ever is a comedy about trying to top life’s hottest moments. Unfashionable Jeremy takes his vaguely foreign boyfriend, Kraatz, on his kindergarten teacher’s wedding cruise, hoping to settle a score with the groom. Secret desires mount on the high seas, while the wedding videographer tries to shoot his dream project on the side.

COURTNEY BARON: It's about two people with factitious disorder. Factitious disorder is "The reporting of or presence of symptoms of an actual mental or physical disorder that, on investigation, are found to be purposely created by the patient."

KRISTEN PALMER: A poetry cult, The intentional magic of creating a theatrical event, the way belief in art is delicate, requires sacrifice, and is easily evaporated.

CUSI CRAM: A break-up between two female friends. It gets ugly. There is a singer. It may or may not be called Blind Tiger.

ADAM SZYMKOWICZ: It's called Clown Bar, a clown noir play. It's about the seedy underbelly of the organized clown crime world.


LAURA EASON: THE UNDENIABLE SOUND OF RIGHT NOW. The big idea is about time – one’s own time and how it runs parallel with a certain moment of cultural time and how we live in relation to the cultural moment. The play is set in 1991. The plot centers around Jay, an aging club owner with a midas ear. Over the years, he has discovered and showcased countless bands in his now world-famous hole in the wall club. When DJ Walla, a young, British DJ who is the new "it' boy of the music world enters the scene spinning what he calls "the undeniable sound of right now", Jay's club and all who count on it, watch their scene and their moment slipping away into history. The play asks, among other things, what do you do when your moment is passing? And, ideally, the play opens with a short rock show and closes with a DJ spinning.

For reservations, please call 212-946-5198 and for more information, please go here.

The complete list of Cino Nights playwrights:

Gary Sunshine
Mando Alvarado
Courtney Baron
Florencia Lozano
Kristen Palmer
Emily DeVoti
Cusi Cram
Jessica Dickey
Daniel Talbott
Adam Szymkowicz
Laura Eason
Sheri Wilner
Daniel Reitz
Crystal Skillman
Megan Mostyn-Brown
Charlotte Miller
Keith Reddin
Dael Orlandersmith
Jonathan Blitstein

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